setting the stage

while driving my daughter to work today we came upon an emergency. a police officer was directing cars in a single lane, fire trucks filled a parking lot that had been doused with water. an ambulance was pulled, half in and half out, of the lot and black smoke was billowing. i did what i always do when i see such a scene...i started praying. for anyone who might be hurt. for the helpers who had responded. and even for the small groups on onlookers (this time replete with cell phones, video recording the incident).
as we inched closer to the actual action everything changed. first we noticed boom mics, then improvised dressing room tents, then the catering truck. what looked so much like an emergency was really a set for the taping of a television series. i felt so silly. and so manipulated.
i recently experienced a similar set of feelings while in long beach california where a csi miami show’s taping was evidenced only by the wardrobe and property trucks parked in a corner of the lot. without those markers everything seemed so real. the police uniforms and cars, the scurrying about, the victims.
come to find out, in the csi television series, long beach plays the role of miami. not long ago the set dressers converted a portion of the beach on my brother and sister-in-law’s street to look as though a hurricane had been through. replete with overturned cars, debris strewn about the beach, and a trailer on it’s side, it all looked quite real. one of their neighbors, who is from thailand, posted photos of the set on facebook with captions that read “my neighborhood,” failing to mention that the hurricane was staged. she was flooded with worried responses requesting status updates on the safety of her family.
these incidents strike me as eerily similar to how relating in social networking spaces feels these days. we follow tweets that share everything from the mundane to the important in real time and we, ourselves, tweet that which we want to be associated with. we watch eachother’s facebook pages, noticing how we all look in posted photos, who has rsvp’ed to events, and whose names are (and are not) on invite lists. we read quippy status updates that paint pictures about how friends’ days or weeks are going and fill in the blanks in between by noticing eachother on the pages of friends in shared circles. we get drawn in by the drama and feel alternatingly fantastic and terrible based on how our “production values” measure up or not. we tend our own pages with care, posting what we hope others might notice and setting spotlights on particular occurrences. we tweet and post as though we are setting a stage.
i’m guessing we’ve all done it. used people, events, stories, or things as props to highlight our significance or fill in gaps for a sense of lacking. if we haven’t, i’m guessing we’ve been tempted.
a few weeks ago someone told me they thought i was christina applegate. after i stopped laughing all i could think was, “this would make an unbelievable tweet or remarkable status update!” in the sake of full disclosure, i did not consider this because it was goofy interaction but because i thought such “announcements” might make me seem younger and more hip than i really if by my suggesting this i might be able to get people to think it. never mind that it was dark and very late at night. never mind that i was recently “gifted” a subscription to the aarp magazine or that i was asked, a year ago, if i wanted the senior citizen discount. i never felt tempted to tweet these incidents.
here’s what strikes me about this. it is so easy, these days, to create a false self. just as long beach can be made to be miami, so can we make ourselves over online to be different from who we truly are. when these false selves are recognized and rewarded (by garnering friends and followers) it can become internally confusing. the false self has hundreds of “friends” and followers. what about the true self. could it garner this kind of relational bank?
what if people knew that i only “liked” harvard university so i could look intellectual? what if people knew that i listened to bon iver once just so i could say i was a fan? what if it was disclosed that i only stepped in to the hot new restaurant in town so that i could check in (location apps) and never ate there? how would people feel if they knew that i find ways of manipulating celebrities to friend me from their personal accounts just so they show up in my friend list? who would be shocked if they learned that i have several twitter accounts so that i can build interest in my primary one by having lots of responses, all generated by me, under different alias’? what if people knew i took roughly 500 photos of myself and then doctored the best with photoshop before using it as my profile picture? 
these are all real questions i’ve gathered over time from real people who are just trying to make their way through the complex maze of relationships in cyberspace. it’s so easy to fudge the facts and, if not fudge, highlight those we like and omit those we don’t.
above my bathroom mirror a phrase is painted on the wall. the phrase is this: “be.” that’s all. just be. who you are. really.  i had that word-phrase placed there because i need it. i need reminders that who i am is enough. i need antidotes to the cultural pressure to “do, do, do!” with disregard for personal integrity, depth, and rootedness. i need to remember that it is the fact that i am doreen that matters and not the fact that i look like christina applegate to a stranger. 
the phrase that could affix to a facebook wall could be “PRESENT!” as in, “present yourself.” make the set look good. create a realistic environment with whatever props you have on hand. train spotlights on the places you want people to notice. exaggerated colors and size look better from the audience. they’ll make your set “pop.” the better the set looks, the larger or more devoted the audience. heck, if the set is really good, even folks uninvolved will be pulled in just as onlookers are at a television taping.
when the taping concludes, however, the set is deconstructed. the illusion shattered. the fake blood and smoke machine residue cleaned up. the fire trucks and costumed police officers go home and all that’s left is the empty parking lot. the same is true of our online selves if we’ve constructed false selves to whom our “friends” are connected.
and so, it might behoove us to ask ourselves, behind the well and carefully constructed “walls,” who are we and who are our friends and followers in this non-illusory, real-life-touchable space. why not drop the set decoration and offer ourselves as we really are? as BEings whose flaws serve only to make us all the more compelling, interesting, and real.